Monday, September 6, 2010

The Opposite of Instructive

Last week, as I was attempting to tighten up my brakes (they were starting to bottom out on the handlebars a bit too much for my liking) I discovered a couple of things. One was that the living room of an apartment is never really the most convenient place to work on a bike. I had to prop it up against a doorframe, and then kneel on hardwood to try and get close to the brakes, or stand and lean over the bike awkwardly. The other thing I discovered was that the repair manual I had, which I picked up a while back and found fairly unreadable, but assumed would turn out to be useful when I needed it, was near useless. "Roadside Bicycle Repair" my ass: not sure you can call a book that, if it tells you that shortening your brake cable can only properly be done with (and I quote) "special pliers known as the "fourth hand," a solitary monk among tools serving few other purposes. Only the most devout mechanics take one on the road."

Well, thank you. Nice to know that to do what I want to do, I'll need a tool that, you assure me, I don't have.

The instructions to go on to say, "Lacking such salvation, your best hope toward redemption arrives with the barrel adjusters, which intervene along the cable's path to lengthen or shorten its housing, effectively decreasing or increasing the distance a cable must travel to execute decisions."

The style goes on like that, incidentally. The slightly-off verbs and prepositions alone are enough to make my little editor's heart want to scream.

I picked the book in question - Roadside Bicycle Repair: A Pocket Manifesto - up in a little indie bookstore because the author, Sam Tracy, had written another, much bigger, book, that the staff in the bookstore said was good. But this one was smaller, cheaper, and easier to include in the bike bag. And it had a very nifty neo-retro-Soviet red-and-black cover. So I picked it up, got it home, and sat down to take a look at it. I got about half a page before I found myself flipping on to another section, due to the prose style mostly, and the lack of comprehensible pictures, and then I decided that I'd just keep it around, and the next time I wanted to work on the bike, I'd break it out and find the section I needed, and then maybe the book would prove to be useful.

So I found the section I needed. How to shorten the brake cable (or, apparently, its 'housing.') I've been biking steadily for three years or so now. I can change and patch my tires, adjust my seat, tighten bolts, install racks and other accessories, swap out pedals, all that sort of thing. But I'm not exactly familiar with all types of bike, or brake. And naming a thing does not mean I will know what it is, or looks like. So, having just mentioned the barrel adjusters, Tracy goes on to say:

"We may find a barrel perched atop the brake itself or riding the lever's tip, but really they show up anywhere along the cable's length."

(Okay, but what do they look like? And where is the tip of the brake lever anyway?)

"We need to wind the barrel adjuster up and out of its base in order to increase the cable's tension and tighten the brakes, and vice versa."

(Vice versa? What? My internal editor is crying.)

"The barrel adjusters governng brake cables wear small nuts or knurled collars around their necks, which are spun all the way down to finalize a given adjustment."

Okay. I'm now officially lost. And there are no pictures. The pictures that there are in this book aren't really all that informative: they show you, in this section, a couple of different styles of brake, but don't identify any of the parts. I'm left wondering who this book is meant for. Not me, apparently, since he only manages to baffle me. But then, people who already know what all of the bits are called and where to find them on their bike probably also already know how they work, and warnings about having your brakes positioned too high (accidentally gouging your sidewalls), or about not riding a bike with a loose wheel, are probably a little beneath them. And dear god, someone should have stopped his prose style before it got as far as "There opens a Pandora's box of loose, loud, and less-effective brakes, against which we set the course of our mechanical energies."

To be fair, there were three pages that seemed pretty clear to me: on patching a tire. It was nice to know how long the liquid rubber needs to set before you put on the patch. An actually useful piece of information, and there was a photograph that illustrated what needed to be done. The initial "flight check" section seemed promising, too, but somewhere between checking to make sure the handlebars aren't loose or wobbling, and "keep an eye out for any tight chain links," he makes another one of those huge leaps over a knowledge gap. Perhaps, Sam, you could tell me how to identify whether a chain link is tight or not? No? Okay, then.

Putting the book down, I went online. It wasn't much more help, but I at least thought I knew where to start. But then, as I was testing the tension on the front brake, I felt the cable give, and the brake handle bottomed out completely. I could hold both brakes down full strength and roll the bike back and forth with no resistance. And when I looked, the front brake's cable looked unpleasantly thin, as though it had frayed down to one small, delicate line. So I swore to myself, packed up my tools, and resigned myself to taking the bus to work the next day, and to taking the bike over to the local bike shop in the afternoon to get someone a little more qualified to replace the cable.

And promised myself I'd find a better repair book.


  1. If you have troubles like that again, I don't mind if you drop me a line & I'll explain it (& can find pictures showing the parts too). Good that Mike is once again fightin' fit! -Paul.

  2. Oh, I meant 'troubles' as in explanations of parts names or how to do maintenance. Hope you have chain lube for Mike & are applying it regularly, speaking of which...

  3. Oh dear!

    If your schedule jives, I suggest going to re-Cycles, where they'll show you how to fix your bike, and you can volunteer on their bikes to improve your skillz.

    - RG>

  4. "Zinn and the Art of Bicycle Repair" has been very helpful to me over the years. I knew nothing, now I know something. re-Cycles is great to help with the stuff you're never quite sure about.

    I just wish there was an ipod version for longer trips, so I'd have access to the whole book without the weight.

  5. google Sheldon Brown -- there all questions will be answered.